We woke at 6am in the Chief’s home after a good night’s sleep to a lovely dawn sky. As anticipated, it was cold cold cold that morning. After the ice-baths in the cistern the evening before, I assumed the nights must get very cold to keep the water at that temperature despite the consistent hot days.
Outside at the table in front of the house, we sat and mixed up our coffees. In two weeks in the country, I didn’t see brewed coffee offered anywhere in Myanmar. Nestle instant coffee packets were proffered everywhere we went. At the outdoor table in the frosty air were bowls with packets of coffee, packets of instant creamer, and packets of sweetener. *sigh* But it was around 30 degrees and all those packets came with a thermos of hot water, so we considered ourselves fortunate.
By 8am we said goodbye to the family and walked out into the red dirt streets of Ywar Pu. Today we walked 26 km, continuing through the lands of the Dannu people and then into Yaung Yoe country.
We walked through low mountains and valleys. It’s agricultural country, and the activities we witnessed were in support of the economy there. Field stubble was being burned, as well as slash and burn activities to clear more land. It made the skies hazy but we rarely smelled the smoke because we didn’t come close to the active burning. Most of the cattle and oxen were tied to trees singly or in pairs, and were clearly used to pull carts or to plow. Occasionally there were more cattle in a field, so I could see there were at least a few ranches.
Though we had seen it the day before, I am still impressed with the terraced hillsides of rice paddies. We were in-between seasons and did not see any rice still growing. Everything had been harvested, the dirt was dry and hard, and often cattle were out grazing on what was left of the rice plants before it was burned. We also saw chilies and ginger harvested. The chilies would be in great heaps in the shade beneath a house (houses and storage buildings were often two story, with the living quarters above and storage beneath). Ginger was spread out on tarps beside the fields, drying in the sun. Crops are harvested by hand, and though it is late in the season, we saw people all day long in the fields, still bringing in the last of the crops.
Remember the blisters I developed on my first day in Yangon? No problem! I had protected my feet in every way I could in the few days before this trip, and now on day two of my hike, they still felt fine. I definitely could still feel the blisters, since they were there between my toes (from the flip flops) and on my heels, but in my hiking shoes it was manageable and I didn’t give them a thought. I had, however, begun to sport a sunburn on my face and after the fact remembered to start using the sunscreen I had in my pack. Ha ha. I’ll never ever learn about the sun. I just love heat and sun so much, I can never remember that it’s supposed to be dangerous.
At our morning break we stopped for tea in a big open hut with an older woman on one side weaving cloth. She had a stack of completed scarves and bags beside her. Much of it was garish lime green and orange and cobalt blue, but I found a subtler and tasteful weave of white, black, gold, and purple. The scarf cost me 4000 Kyats – exactly $3. If I had more cash on me I would have paid her more for the lovely scarf woven by hand by a lovely country woman.
Our lunch stop couldn’t have come soon enough. It was hot and there was no getting around it. By noon it was 96 degrees and we were hiking in a lot of direct sunlight. We literally dropped to the floor in the large village home, half of us going prone right away after gulping warm water from our packs. People at the house sold us liter bottles of water all around, and we gulped at those too. Hein came in at one point to check on us, and immediately asked Fumi to change his position. Not knowing the customs, he had accidentally laid down with his feet pointed at the shrine to Buddha – very disrespectful.
Hein allowed us a very long stop. I wondered why we had to get up so blasted early if we had a 2 ½ hour lunch stop. After our brilliant cook prepared another delicious multi-course meal, we were offered the opportunity to go explore the town as we had yesterday. Every one of us stayed put and either rested or fell clean asleep. But I had to trust the Company. A1 Trekking had been around for years and was likely well-beyond a learning curve. The long rest did me so much good.
Off we went again, into the sun, over the hills, past the water buffalo. At our afternoon snack stop we finally came close to one of the fires. I heard a rushing, snapping sound in the distance and asked Hein what it was. He didn’t hear it. We sat down on the grass to rest in the shade of a tree, and everyone’s ears adjusted to the sound of our chosen spot. Chatter died down. And Margaret popped up to her feet! “Hein, what is that sound?” she pressed. He listened and finally heard it, “oh, that’s fire.” Typical, easy-going Hein. Margaret’s ears tuned in while I slowly got used to it and tuned it out. She periodically walked out away from our tree to watch the fire burn.
Margaret was still triggered by recent memories of having to run for her life from wildfire, and I didn’t grudge her a moment of that worry. While house-sitting for a friend in northern California last fall she was awake by coincidence in the night and glanced out a window to see flames on the hills, moving toward the homes! She only had time to grab her keys and her purse and run. From the car she called another friend nearby and woke him up. He did not have a car so she drove through the thickening smoke to pick him up. She called another neighbor who was already awake and told them to call everyone they knew. In an unknown neighborhood, in the smoke, in the middle of the night, chased by fire, she and her friend got away to her house, which for that night was safe. The home she was house-sitting burned to the ground. Whoah. In fact, the whole reason she is on vacation at the moment is because the owners of the ruined home are staying in her home (Margaret rents her house frequently on Air BnB).
We walked into a more forested section that provided some shade and saw our first bamboo forests of the trip. Hein took us past a courtyard of extremely derelict pagodas. There was a single shiny gold pagoda among them, but most were ancient and crumbling. I was eager to wander through them, as I am always drawn to the ancient stuff and less excited about the sparkly gold paint. Call it the anthropologist in me. Hein explained that this site was going to be demolished and brand new pagodas built. He said that upset him because people would come and steal the relics. I asked what the relics were, and he said they are often gold and jewels. I asked a few questions but wasn’t exactly clear on the cause and effect of the future crimes. He discussed the pagodas in the moment as though he assumed the relics were inside, but he talked as though the dismantling of them would result in theft. I didn’t understand whether he thought the workers would be the thieves. Hein took me to a particularly decrepit pagoda and showed me the section of bricks that showed where the relic had been placed – I could easily see the area outlined. Have you seen an old brick building where a hole that was previously a window has been subsequently bricked in? It looked like that. Only, this was a hundred years old and falling apart. I could have pulled the bricks out with my fingers. I wondered why the thieves wouldn’t have done their work now, before the workers showed up. But I am sure additional information was lost due to my inability to understand fluent Burmese.
We entered the town of Pattu Pauk and came across a monastery. We had passed several monasteries on our trip and I asked Hein if they were abandoned. They never had a soul about. Hein explained that the monks go out into the communities and do good works and collect donations during the day, but sleep there every night. I had overheard him talking the day before with Anna and Lukas about being both Buddhist and Muslim. His father was Muslim, and his mother was Buddhist, and each of the children in the family had chosen which religion they preferred and had the family’s support. Hein said that he had chosen to be Muslim, but had not given up the Buddhist practices taught to him by his mother. So he laughed and said he was both, since he observed both whenever he could. Anyway, Hein expressed his disgust with monks that he called “fake monks.” In explanation, he used percentages, saying that 85% of monks were fake monks and of those left only 5% of those were truly following the religion devoutly. I asked him to explain more. He said that most people joined the monastic life “because it’s easier. You don’t have to work, you don’t have to have a skill. You can do nothing and still have a place to sleep and food to eat.” He said those people did the bare minimum to escape scrutiny, and lived off donations.
Hein brought up the Rohingya. NONE of us tourists were about to be the first one to speak the word. I swear, before this trip, Myanmar was in my BBC podcast Every. Single. Day. For the heinous crimes of genocide – whole villages burned and the Muslim Rohingya people slaughtered by the Christian military – and leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s adamant denial that anything unpleasant is happening in her country. An outsider listening to the news gets the picture real quick that Myanmar’s military is NOT a group you want to interact with. Since we had been here, we had seen nothing but peaceful, happy people and not so much as a glimpse of military personnel. And here is Hein, laughing and saying out loud that he is Muslim! Hein just shrugged and said he didn’t really know what was going on with the oppressed people of Rakine State. It’s never on the news and no one talks about it. He said he had heard much more about it from his tour groups.
Pattu Pauk was our destination for the evening, so we only had a few steps to go beyond the monastery to find our home for the night. But before we got there, we got distracted by a group of women sitting together on blankets in the street doing some kind of work. We asked Hein if it would be ok with the women if we got close and watched them, and he said it would be fine. They were so beautiful, and seemed to be having so much fun, we had a hard time leaving them. In fact, the owner of the home we would be sleeping in came trotting down the street, asking Hein where we were going – concerned that his houseful of renters might change plans at the last minute. Hein assured him that we would be coming, but we wanted to watch the sight in the street. They were separating the white fluffy parts of popped corn from the hard shells and seeds. It was wedding preparations, which must have explained the buoyant atmosphere among them. I didn’t ask, but the popcorn could be for throwing at the newlyweds.
Tonight I had had enough of the sun, sweat, and red dirt. The set-up at both our homestays is this: cistern in the back yard full of ice water, empty pan floating in ice water, platform of boards beside cistern. You pull up the curtain, so everything from your shoulders down is covered (ok, I’m just hoping that everything from my shoulders down was hidden from the passersby…), then reach over and fill the pan with water and dump it over yourself, trying to keep your whoops of frozen astonishment to a minimum. Grab a bar of soap, lather up to the best of your ability, then pour several more pans of ice water onto your body to try and wash off the soap. Then if you are me, grit your teeth, take a deep breath, and dump another pan of water onto your head. I did it! I washed my hair. The others cheered and clapped when I arrived at the outdoor table with wet hair. And well they should have.